i am in the thick of it writing the first manuscript of faith shift: hope for spiritual refugees, church burnouts and freedom seekers. i’ve had all 5 kids at home, all kinds of never-ending refuge craziness, on top of may being the busiest month of the year. of course i waste time i don’t have asking myself “what in the %(#&@%!^!!^ was i thinking, saying yes to this project?!?”
but it’s too late now, and as i much as i like to complain, it is fun pulling it all together. and just when i think it doesn’t matter, i get an email or have a conversation in real life where i am reminded how many of us are in the midst–or on the other side–of a radical faith shift and how crazy & lonely & freaky it can feel.
when it’s all said and done, faith shifting involves a huge amount of grief. we lose so much, all kinds of things that seemed to hold us together for so long. what was once crystal clear becomes muddy. what felt comfortable now feels foreign. what worked, now doesn’t.
i believe that one of the central parts of a faith shift is moving away from the core values of affiliation, certainty, and conformity that are embedded into much of contemporary christianity and moving toward a faith that values freedom, diversity, and mystery.
it’s crazy to me that this process is often perceived as radical or sinful or rebellious, but we can’t escape the fact that most of our traditional church systems–especially conservative or fundamentalist ones–are built firmly and solidly upon the core values of affiliation, certainty, and conformity. they keep a lot of wheels spinning round; they are reliable, clear, predictable and make groups work.
here’s the short version of what they mean to me:
affiliation – a sense of being part of a team or club or something bigger than us. if you’re like me, it felt awesome to be adopted into a new “family” in the early years of my faith and i related to the feeling of being connected to other christians not only in my church but in the wider world, too. knowing which team we’re on is powerful.
certainty – black and white, right or wrong, good or bad, strong or weak, godly or ungodly. much of life before a faith shift is built on certainty about what God means, feels, thinks, expects. part of our certainty includes helping other people be clear on what’s right and wrong, too.
conformity – groups have norms and behaviors that we as humans have a natural aptitude for adapting to. we learn what it takes to be part and we do it. we learn by watching and joining in. some of it is conscious and some of it is far more unconscious, building on our desire to somehow belong.
as i look at these three values of my early faith it’s easy to dismiss them as all bad. while i now disagree with many methodologies behind them, i respect that part of healing and moving forward to new places requires making peace with the past.
affiliation, certainty, and conformity used to be big deals to me. they meant everything. they guided the way i thought, talked, behaved, and connected with God.
then they stopped working. they outlasted their usefulness. they no longer resonate. i won’t do anything to be part, my certainty faded away years ago, and any demands for conformity make me into a crazy person.
i’m trying not to look back with disdain but instead embrace my deep desire to keep walking toward three compelling & worth-pursuing values on the other side of a faith shift–freedom, diversity, and mystery.
freedom – instead of people pleasing and doing what everything we can do to conform to be part of the group, freedom is finding our voice and passion and feeling free to lead, grow, learn, experience, practice, try without asking for permission. freedom also helps us let go of trying to control or convince others and accept people just as they are (and ourselves, too). it’s a deep and strong security in who we are apart from a group or label.
diversity – homogeneous groups make me nuts now. once you’ve tasted diversity and are around a wide range of beliefs, theologies, and life experiences, we can never go back. living in the tension of diversity and what it means to love each other despite our differences is so glorious (and way harder, too!)
mystery – embracing a bigger God that surpasses what we can get our head around, “i don’t know’s”, and far more expansive ways to connect with God beyond only the Bible. some people are really scared of this word, but those who have unraveled certainty value the magnetic beauty of mystery and the healing, hope, and challenge it brings.
freedom, diversity, and mystery do not need to be feared.
and we don’t necessarily have to leave church completely to find them (although i respect sometimes it’s necessary); we just might have to leave “church-as-we-knew-it” and find some new forms that we would have never before considered as a possibility.
many systems fear freedom, diversity, and mystery because they cannot be controlled or contained. affiliation, certainty, and conformity are fairly easy tasks and create a uniformity that is far simpler to manage. letting faith out of the box and giving people freedom jacks with an industry and man’s ability to manage God for other people.
but when i read the gospels, i can’t see how affiliation, certainty & conformity in the ways we’ve made them out to be was what Jesus had in mind.
yeah, we long for freedom, diversity, and mystery for a good reason–it’s far more consistent with “faith.”
peace, hope and courage to us all as we slowly & bravely move from affiliation, certainty & conformity to freedom, diversity & mystery. it’s a bumpy, beautiful, often terrifying path but so worth it because it all points toward love.
“when we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. the friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” – henri nouwen
this month’s synchroblog is centered on pain & how to love & care for others who are in pain. i laughed this morning because today’s my birthday and it’s a little ironic that somehow even on this day i ended up talking about pain! there’s an awful lot of grief & loss & hard stuff in this world and for some reason it feels like it keeps ramping up. so many hard things every direction. what is our responsibility in it? what should we say or not say? what helps & what hurts?
in our human DNA is a deep desire to avoid pain, either in our own life or in the lives of others.
it’s hard to hurt. and it’s hard to be around other people who are hurting.
at the refuge, our little faith community, there’s a high degree of pain. but i always tell everyone that really, we are no different from almost any other church or group (except that others might have health insurance & live in bigger houses). we just have a culture of raw honesty, where what’s on the inside is freer to come out on the outside. we are trying to be people who welcome pain to the table instead of run from it. most humans share many of the same troubles & woes, but many don’t have a safe place to express it out loud.
pain and struggle often create shame. i remember when i first started sharing more of my real story; every part of me wanted to run for the hills, move away, do anything i could to not have to live with relationships where all my stuff was out on the table, exposed.
i’m always learning, too, but here are a few ideas that seem to help in the midst of pain:
1. less words, more presence. i have a theory that we often have an unconscious hope that if we could say the right words in the exact right way, it would radically help another person. most people aren’t one sentence away from feeling better when they are in pain. presence seems to matter more than words. long-haul-ness goes the furthest for those in pain. many people are eager to help and support at the beginning of pain eruptions, but over time many people drop off and quit wondering how we’re doing. safe people don’t do drive-by pain relief. they are in it for the long haul, which i keep realizing is sometimes the hardest thing of all.
2. less statements, more questions. along with the one-sentence-away-from-changing-everything theory, it’s a natural default to talk instead of listen. i don’t mean interrogation (although i can be guilty of asking too many hard questions in one sitting, ha ha), but questions usually save us from advice giving and fixing. they help people process out loud and take a lot of pressure off us coming up with the right words that can’t be found anyway.
3. less anxiety, more trust. pain creates so much anxiety in us. this is why when people are hurting, we have an instinct to “fix it” or do-something-anything that will help the hurting person feel better in that moment. i feel it all the time. it’s a weird innate control thing and in so many ways, it’s about us playing God and taking on more responsibility than we need to. it’s why i have a love-hate thing with 12 step groups. i love that there’s no cross-talk, advice giving and fixing, but inside i sometimes feel a little crazy that we just thank people for sharing and go on to the next person. however, it models something we need to learn–we can’t fix anyone else. the best thing we can do is listen, honor the pain ,and trust the long healing path.
4. less perfection, more grace. relational dynamics like hanging-in-the-thick-of-pain-with-people is not formulaic. we will screw it up, we will say lame things, we will fail people. recently i gave unsolicited advice to a hurting friend. yikes, as soon as the words tumbled out of my mouth, i knew they would hurt instead of help. i was reminded, yet again, how we need grace as friends, as leaders, as people. we’re imperfect people trying to stay present in hard places; we won’t be able to master every moment. this is messy and sometimes we will have to apologize & ask for grace (and give it to our friends), too.
maybe the best thing we can do to hold the space for others’ pain is to learn to hold the space for ours. if we are people who push our own pain away, we usually will do the same for others. if we are hard on ourselves for feeling certain feelings, we will usually be hard on others, too. i love what the apostle paul says in 2 corinthians 1:3-4, that we comfort others with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. it’s why i don’t think most people need another Bible study or church service; there are plenty of those.
we need places to practice getting in touch with our story.
i’m going to quote henri nouwen twice in one post because it’s a great reminder:
“the christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.”
yeah, our biggest strength is our weakness, our pain.
in the end, that’s all we’ve got.
other bloggers writing about pain this month:
it’s mother’s day weekend in the USA, the time where a bunch of women feel special and extra-loved, and another group of women often don’t. like so many other holidays, many who feel great about it sometimes forget that there are others who really struggle this particular weekend. church is extra sucky if they make all the mothers stand up and get a flower and you’re the one still sitting. in divorced families, the reality of what’s been lost creeps up. others have lost their mothers or significant women in their life and it’s another year of grief.
i promise, i’m not trying to ruin the holiday for anyone, really! as a mom of 5, it’s not a half bad weekend for me. i love all the spoilage. but i feel really passionate about making sure we don’t equate mother’s day with only birthing babies.
having children often becomes the ultimate pinnacle of womanhood, especially christian womanhood. this pushes an awful lot of women to the margins and dishonors all that we were created to be beyond making babies.
sure, having babies is one way to mother, but there are countless other ways, too.
all women are mothers.
it’s how God made us. it looks different for each of us and we have to break down the crazy stereotypes and ways we’ve been boxed in, fenced in, and limited in order to get to the essence of our awesomeness as women. just like there are lots of ways to love God, there are lots of ways to mother, to bring things to life, to create, to nurture, to build, to protect.
women mother when we:
call out God’s image in someone.
cultivate art & words & beauty.
advocate for another.
build friendships and life-giving relationships.
midwife spiritual shifts.
make new families who come from our wombs & orphanages & foster care
hug a friend.
listen to a friend.
weep with those who weep.
rejoice with those who rejoice.
start something. build something. create something.
protect what’s good.
lend hope to someone who needs to borrow it.
inspire dreams & new ideas.
nurture pockets of justice & love & freedom in small or big ways.
care for our coworkers, our neighbors, someone else’s child
care for parents.
care for ourselves.
yeah, women are awesome–strong, tender, wise, beautiful, compassionate, creative, powerful, brave, messy. kids, no kids, single, married, gay, straight, rich, poor, educated, uneducated, divorced, widowed, young, old–it makes no difference.
the one thing we have in common is that we all somehow mother.
and i’m really glad there are lots of ways to do that.
that’s fun to celebrate. i hope we all tell a woman today how you are grateful for her mothering.
happy mother’s day!
a few weeks ago at the bold boundaries sacred friendship gathering, hugo schwyzer, an amazing writer & speaker & professor from LA, shared this little gem: “the church’s witness is to heal shame and division.”
that is what we are meant to do: heal shame, heal division in this crazy mixed up world.
for the most part, i don’t think that is what “the church” is known for. in fact, in so many ways we are known for just the opposite–for creating shame, for promoting division. i had plenty of shame on my own before i came into the fold of christianity, but the truth is that for a long time, my shame actually ramped up instead of decrease. a lot of my shame came from somehow falling short as a christian, not measuring up to what i was supposed to be doing, and a weird pervasive feeling that somehow being “me” wasn’t really what God had in mind. the amount of energy i spent on trying to be someone else was really exhausting, and i am ever-grateful for continually breaking free from some of those bonds.
when it comes to division, this has unfortunately become our signature mark. instead of being peacemakers and bridge builders, we are more often known for promoting who’s in, who’s out, who’s good, who’s bad, who’s on God’s side, who’s not. as a christian of a more conservative persuasion in my earlier years, i did my share of dividing. i remember how passionate i was about making sure i wasn’t “of the world” and ways i put myself above other people for self-protection. what’s interesting, though, is as i have shifted and changed, i can see, too, how some of what i have done has just created a different kind of division. this time, i am aligned on the other side of things, against some of what contemporary christianity represents.
but division is division.
and the church’s witness is to heal shame and division.
to me, the church is not a building or a system or a program. it is people gathered together to learn and practice the ways of Jesus and pass on love, hope, mercy, and justice in a broken, weird world.
our responsibility is to play our part in healing shame and division. i don’t think that’s a new kind of legalism or asking too much of us. (thanks, jamie).
as far as i can tell, this kind of healing primarily comes through relationship with one another. healing from shame and division isn’t the kind of transformation that drops out of the sky into the quiet of the night. it somehow happens when people bump up against each other and give and receive presence, mercy, grace, understanding, challenge, encouragement, love, truth, hope.
it happens in friendship. in relationship.
inequality, deep grooves of hierarchy, and stereotypes of men & women, rich & poor, liberal & conservative, gay & straight, black & white, healthy & sick, educated & uneducated perpetuate shame and division. the way it is healed is through breaking down divides and finding ways to live together as friends, as brothers & sisters, as human beings.
i love h. norman crosby’s thought about the church as a place where we collapse into God, collapse into each other. we can’t collapse into God or other people if we are filled with shame and divided from one another, if we shame others and separate ourselves from one another.
our best hope is finding our common humanity in the upside down ways of Jesus.
discovering our shared experience.
our willingness to engage in real, raw relationship with each other.
learning to be honest about how we feel about ourselves. how we feel about others. how much we are guided by fear. how much we need God’s help to change. how we can’t change the world tomorrow, but we can start with changing us.
some questions we can maybe ask individually & collectively as little pockets of love are:
how are we entering into deeper and more meaningful relationships with other people, even if we are scared?
how are we building bridges instead of bombing them?
how are we honoring and respecting people who are different from us, even when we don’t agree?
how are we keeping our hands open instead of clenched? our hearts soft instead of protected?
how are we recognizing our shame so it can lose its grip?
how are we becoming better human beings, less divided, more free?
how are we learning to receive and not just give?
and most of all, how are we helping each other feel less shame, less division, so have a much better shot at collapsing into God, collapsing into each other?
today i have a post up at sheloves magazine as part of the monthly “down we go” column. the theme this month is “soar” and my thought is that maybe we could redefine what that means. it’s called flapping, flailing, flying: ”what might look easy for one person is incredibly hard for another. what might look insignificant to some might be a miracle to another. what looks like flapping, flailing, barely-flying for one is actually soaring for another.” i’d love to hear what it stirs up for you.
this past weekend i was part of a beautiful conversation in chicago centered on friendship between men & women. i always say that while i don’t wake up every morning thinking about cross-gender friendships, i do wake up every morning thinking about people & relationships and ways we can participate in healing the shame and division of this world together (more on the healing shame & division part next week!).
my dear friend and refuge co-pastor karl wheeler and i spoke together on friday night. our conversation was called “making purple: learning to show up, speak up, shut up, and trust love.” we had a great time telling the bloody, messy, fun, sometimes-insane story of our friendship the past 7 years leading the refuge together. it’s a miracle, really, that we have made it this far, but it didn’t drop out of the sky. we have worked our butts off to keep hacking at this and i’m ever grateful for God’s everlasting grace & mercy.
friday night, we thanked each other for the ways we both have tried as best we could to be a good friend, teammate, and partner as we nurture this wild and beautiful community alongside each other. it’s not that we haven’t thanked one another before, but it was really sweet to remember the ways we have helped each other move forward.
my friend jim henderson pointed out something in the Q&A that struck me. he simply said, “hey you guys, thank you for thanking each other.”
it’s easy for me to remember all of the hard stuff, but the truth is that way back when, karl was the person who called me to come play in a way that changed the course of my life forever. he saw my passion, valued my leadership, and encouraged me to step into what i loved to do and lead a church together, something that in the evangelical world is extremely rare, especially since we aren’t married to each other. i have come a long way since then, but his simple and strong belief in me all those years ago is a significant part of my ongoing story.
jim’s comment made me think about how many people–men or women or both–have had influence in our lives that changed little or big things for us along the way.
they were seed planters or flame fanners or unexpected cheerleaders. their love and encouragement, their making room for us at the table, their kindness, their support, their healing touch (and yes, even painful words or unsolicited advice) helped us move toward something better.
maybe you’ve already told them before, but sometimes–like friday night–it’s good to remember again and say it out loud. it reminds us that we can’t do this crazy life without others. it reminds us that the ways we are with each other matters and that fanning each other’s hopes, dreams, beauty, healing, and goodness into flame in all kinds of interesting and simple ways does not go unnoticed.
they may already know they’ve impacted you but maybe it would be encouraging for them to hear it again. it’s always great to hear the words “thank you” and know that we somehow mattered.
most of all, i hope we never underestimate how desperately we all need more advocates, brothers & sisters & mothers & fathers, cheerleaders, friends, and dignity restorers in our lives.
i love that we can play our unique part in helping each other forge forward, participating in each other’s stories in simple & important ways.
there are so many other far more profound things to ponder from this past weekend, but my brain is mushy from working on this crazy-hard-overwhelming book project, and i do wonder if maybe the most simple things are actually the most meaningful.
so i invite us all to thank someone today.
no matter how big or small.
write them, call them, text them, facebook them, figure out a way tell them.
it’s a gift not only for them, but for us, too.
a few weeks ago i was asked a question on twitter by a lovely blogger friend about a scripture that pointed to “a voice for the voiceless”, which is so often used in a lot of justice-y language. i wrote recently how there is no such thing as voiceless, just people whose voices have been silenced by life experiences, systemic oppression, generational poverty, and a myriad of other things that quelch God’s image.
there’s no passage in the Bible about being a voice for the voiceless. that is terminology we’ve somehow adopted. but when considering our responsibility to help advocate for those whose voices are silenced, i love these passages in isaiah: “seek justice, defend the oppressed, take up the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (vs. 1:17) & ”is not this the kind of fasting i have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–when you see the naked to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (vs. 58:6-7).
and proverbs 31:8-9, “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
but my very favorite passage centered on advocating is an unlikely one, in john 8, when Jessus stands between the adulterous woman and those about to stone her to death and advocates on her behalf. he does it in his amazing-and-creative-Jesus-y-way, but the part i am always reminded of is this–had he not advocated for her in that moment, she would have died.
even if she would have been able to use her voice, it wouldn’t have mattered. no one would have listened. no one would have changed a single thing.
everything in the system around her was completely stacked against her.
she needed someone with power to stand and speak on her behalf.
the truth is that advocates aren’t “voice for the voiceless” because there is no such thing as voiceless.
what advocates do, though, is stand for those who for a wide variety of reasons can’t say yet (or sometimes ever) for themselves.
a virgin sold into a brothel in india can’t speak for herself. her only hope is an advocate who will fight for justice on her behalf.
a man with a mental disability can’t open certain doors in the system to get the resources he needs without an advocate’s help no matter how much we’d like to believe he could on his own.
a homeless person can’t cross certain practical bridges without someone moving some of the real-and-strong obstacles out of the way first.
an orphan in an orphanage can’t magically find their way into a family.
a kid being bullied can’t wake up one day and start defending themselves the way we hope.
a woman who deeply desires to break into leadership in a church that doesn’t actively honor her gift will never naturally be heard without someone with power actively advocating for her presence.
a person who has been sexually abused won’t magically have the confidence, strength, and security that they need to stand strong in tricky situations.
an illegal immigrant can’t show up in certain moments and defend themselves alone. the risk is just too great.
advocates stand up for those who for whatever-reason-in-the-moment can’t say it themselves. they also stand alongside for the long haul and help uncover the voice that is buried in there so it can hopefully emerge.
i would never be where i am today as a pastor had i not had a few men who actively and passionately advocated for me. i just couldn’t say it for myself in the systems i was in. i was not voiceless then, but my voice and passion was buried under all kinds of personal & systemic rubble. but just like the woman in john 8, even if i could have spoken up for myself, the churches i was part of wouldn’t have nodded in agreement and immediately flung the door wide open. the chasm was too wide.
but my advocates used their voice and built a bridge for me to eventually use mine.
it’s important to respect the realities of power & not-used-to-being-listened-to voices.
i know many awesome and brave people on the margins who show up all the time to try to get the help they need and are routinely dismissed, mistreated, and neglected. their lack of power and privilege makes their voices mute to many. my role as an advocate is not to speak for them but to get the attention of those who have ignored them, to build bridges of dignity, and break down barriers on their behalf.
the adulterous woman’s only hope was Jesus standing up for her, taking a hit from the powers-that-be, and saying what needed to be said to turn the tide.
that’s what advocates do, in all kinds of wild and creative and often-unorthodox ways (some refuge advocates definitely know what i mean by wild-creative-unorthodox)
and it’s why this world desperately needs an army of advocates. because there are an awful lot of people in every family, school, neighborhood, city, and nook & cranny on this planet who can’t say it for themselves (yet).
my dream is that as the body of Christ, we’d be deeply dedicated to making advocates not buildings. that we’d be known in our communities for actively advocating for systemic change to heal the core roots of injustice. and most of all, that we’d use our power and privilege on behalf of the vulnerable, not to replace their voices but to pave the way for theirs to be heard. to say what they cannot say (yet).